Brian Flores and the Heart of the NFL’s Persistent Inequality

Equal opportunity is only the beginning of making the league a more just and fair workplace.

Every week in her Good Form column, Natalie Weiner explores the ways in which the sports world’s structural inequalities and injustices illuminate those outside it — and the ways in which they’re inextricably connected. You can read previous columns here.

Recently fired Dolphins head coach Brian Flores probably would have been in headlines this week no matter what. Four NFL teams are still trying to fill their head coaching positions, and Flores is one of just a few Black coaches deemed worthy of being considered for those roles — or at least worthy of league-mandated faux consideration, as he alleges in a new class-action lawsuit against the league and at least three of its teams. 

The coach was given hard evidence of something Black coaches have long suspected in the form of an accidental text from his former boss Bill Belichick, congratulating him on being named the Giants’ head coach… three days prior to his interview with the organization. He meant to congratulate Brian Daboll, the white coach whom it was clear the Giants had already decided to hire away from his role as offensive coordinator of the Buffalo Bills. Flores’ still-scheduled interview was, he alleges, a sham only conducted to ensure the team compiled with the NFL’s Rooney Rule, which requires teams to interview two minority candidates for each open head coaching position (it also mandates other interview requirements for other team positions).

There is a reason this is a class action suit: Flores’ filing includes a few of the many examples of Black coaches being passed over, or given opportunities that appear self-evidently unequal by comparison to those of their white counterparts. Since he filed it, Hue Jackson and Marvin Lewis have spoken out about their own experiences with sham interviews and feeling like owners wanted them to lose. Jim Caldwell, whose firing from the Lions after a winning season is mentioned in the suit, was just compelled to combat false reports that he turned down interviews with the Vikings and Raiders. Why would such a report be leaked, unless those organizations were trying their best to circumvent the Rooney Rule?

The suit, which is worth perusing in full, contains a number of other allegations that beg the cliche “explosive:” payoffs to lose games, tampering, and a clear-eyed, quantified assessment of the unequal opportunities for Black coaches in the NFL. “There have only ever been 17 Black Head Coaches who have coached a full season, and four of them (23.5%) were fired after a winning season,” is just one out of pages of startling statistics. 

The NFL, as well as the other named defendants, have rushed to deny and discredit Flores’ allegations. No statement has been remotely as convincing as Flores’ suit. “Diversity is core to everything we do, and there are few issues on which our clubs and our internal leadership team spend more time,” read the league’s official offering, a bald-faced lie obvious to anyone with a few brain cells to rub together. 

The NFL is a trade organization. Its purpose is to facilitate profits for its member organizations, enormous corporations each worth multiple billions of dollars owned by people whose net worth is far greater than that. It is, according to the available data, the most profitable sports league in the world by a large margin. The core of everything they do is money, and to pretend otherwise is laughable.

“There have only ever been 17 Black Head Coaches who have coached a full season, and four of them (23.5%) were fired after a winning season,” is just one out of pages of startling statistics.

Flores’ suit preemptively addressed the league’s rebuttal. “In fact, the racial discrimination has only been made worse by the NFL’s disingenuous commitment to social equity,” the suit states neatly. “Racial discrimination requires real and meaningful attention—not mere soundbites when it is in the League’s financial interest,” it explains later, after pointing to the hypocrisy of the NFL’s futile post-George Floyd gestures towards anti-racism.

The fact that, as the suit points out, not a single one of the 10 Black head coaches hired since 2012 still holds his job today, is both the problem and a symptom of a larger one (Mike Tomlin, the Steelers’ coach since 2007, is the lone remaining Black head coach in the NFL as of this writing). Flores’ suit compares the league to a plantation, a comparison no less apt for its familiarity to those immersed in thinking about the big business of American sports. With that comparison in mind, the damages Flores seeks — mostly steps towards more equitable opportunity in hiring — suddenly look small, just a drop in the bucket of what needs to change. 

Black coaches are not getting hired because of systemic racism. That same racism is what makes it so easy for the NFL to exploit its players and, for that matter, all of its workers, to bring its all-white owners greater profit. It is impossible to isolate the racist hierarchy of the NFL from the weakness of its players’ union, from the way that its players are treated as disposable, from the enormous gap between what its lowest-paid employees make and what its owners take home to purchase new yachts. Starting salary at AT&T Stadium, the largest NFL stadium, is currently $13 an hour; one of the stated benefits of working security at the stadium is “Exclusive opportunities to work inside the stadium and get a sneak peek into the action!” Never mind that you would have to work an hour to buy one of the stadium’s beers, and probably ten or more to buy one ticket.

It is in this aspect of the league’s exploitation that I veer from Flores’ suit’s assessment. It expresses the need for Black ownership to create change — a shift that might lead to more Black coaches and general managers, but one unlikely to change the leverage for players, for their union, and for workers as a whole. Limiting the power and profits of ownership would be nearly impossible, and yet it is the only holistic solution I can think of to making every person who works in the NFL’s life a better one.